Working with nanoparticles: the risks of the ‘new asbestos’

More and more workers are exposed to nanoparticles, which puts them at risk. Even though the extent of those health risks has yet to be determined, we already know that the tiny particles can cause serious illnesses. How can you, as an employer, anticipate these possible negative consequences? Johan Sterckx, prevention advisor in industrial hygiene and toxicology at Mensura, answers the most pressing questions.

Johan: “Nanoparticles only measure 1 billionth of a metre and are therefore invisible to the naked eye. Because they are so small, it is easy to breathe them in, allowing them to make their way deep into the body. They are released due to some natural phenomena and when processing materials. Examples include certain dust particles released during demolition and melting processes, or found in welding fumes and diesel exhaust. Even though especially blue-collar workers are exposed to them, nanoparticles may also be found in an office environment. They come from laser printer toners, for instance.”

Are nanoparticles a new phenomenon?

Johan: “Researchers have found such particles in the ceramic paints used in Ancient Egypt and in medieval stained-glass windows, so they are not new. For the past several years, however, nanoparticles have been deliberately added to materials to make them stronger or give additional functionalities. Dirt-repellent textiles or self-cleaning glass are such examples. This means that more and more workers are exposed to them when performing their daily tasks.”

In the long term, nanoparticles may cause chronic lung disease and even lung cancer.

What kind of damage can nanoparticles cause to the human body?

Johan: “The full impact of nanoparticles is still unclear. One thing is certain, however: inhaling certain types pf nanoparticles, such as those released by printer toners and welding fumes, presents major health risks. They can disrupt cell function because they penetrate so deep into the lungs and the body. This can result in chronic heart and lung diseases and even cancer. That’s why nanoparticles are sometimes called the new asbestos.”

“The effects are only noticeable in the long term, however, which explains why employees and employers have little awareness of the potential dangers.”

How can an employer know the quantity and type of nanoparticles present in the workplace?

Johan: “Measuring the exact amount of particles in the workplace is currently virtually impossible. However, a risk analysis can help identify the products used and the potential risks. These findings are then used to set up a register listing the employees and their potential exposure to specific nanoparticles.”

“The prevention advisor then proposes measures to minimise exposure. Such steps include substituting products or placing them in separate work spaces to reduce the number of exposed workers to the absolute minimum.”

Which measures must an employer take to protect employees who might be exposed?

Johan: “Raising awareness is key. Usually the same protective equipment as for toxic substances, such as a P3 dust mask, is sufficient. Yet, workers sometimes don’t bother to wear masks, because they find them uncomfortable while performing their work.”

“Through training or posters in the workplace, workers become aware of the dangers of nanoparticles, which then encourages them to put on their protective equipment faster and more often. This ensures that they protect themselves against the possible health risks and remain healthy at work.”

Protect your workforce against nanoparticles

Our Industrial Hygiene and Toxicology service carries out a thorough risk analysis with regard to nanoparticles. You can also contact us to set up preventive measures and run courses tailored to your needs. To find out what Mensura can do for you, email us at hyg-toxi@mensura.be or call us on +32 (0)2 549 71 00.